Growing Expectations: Understanding the Politics of Smart Growth in the American States

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2005-12-07

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When asked what is on the minds of voters during the previous two national election cycles, many citizens responded unfavorably to air pollution, traffic congestion, and inadequate access to public facilities, parks and recreation. They specifically blame the lack of open space as the basis of their discontent. What voters are concerned about is sprawl--a condition in which development is too widely spread throughout a limited geographical area. This kind of random, unplanned development creates negative externalities on the infrastructure of cities, suburbs, and some rural areas, but also leads to environmental hazards like smog and stormwater runoff. Smart Growth initiatives seek to remove the barriers to homeownership, public services, and job opportunities by providing access to valuable land resources in suburban and urban centers. Twenty states have implemented Smart Growth policies. As other states continue to grapple with ways to address sprawl, many of them have begun to experiment with similar strategies, such as urban growth boundaries, limitations on exclusionary zoning, and the imposition of impact or development fees to stave off encroaching development. The interesting question is under what conditions do states consider instituting these innovative approaches to address society's most pressing problems? And this dissertation specifically asks: Under what conditions will states adopt a Smart Growth strategy to address urban sprawl? Based on my research, I concluded that the political determinants of public policy matter more than economic considerations, such as the health of the state economy. In other words, a state with an influential governor and strong constitutional powers or a professional legislature is more likely to pursue and adopt Smart Growth, even when accounting for economic conditions. More important, Smart Growth appears to have an ideological dimension: politically liberal states were more likely to adopt Smart Growth than conservative ones. And although some in the Smart Growth community are aware of the growing conservative sentiment around the country today, in many instances they were able to convince both Republicans and Democrats to embrace the Smart Growth approach to growth management.

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